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ISIS = Global Warming?

December 1, 2015

In a recent speech, which marked the end of his time at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Obama tried to be frank.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy, and the second largest emitter” the President stated in speech you can find here. “That the United States not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”

And while it is refreshing (pun intended) to hear the nation’s leader owning up and committing to work toward a legally binding agreement for cutting carbon emissions, he took an interesting rhetorical route to get there.

He compared the Islamic State (ISIS) to global climate change.

If this comparison feels like a slippery slope argument, that’s because it is, but maybe not so steep a gradient as you might think.

There is the first obvious comparison: that Paris is both the site of the climate change conference and the target of recent terrorist attacks. So in that sense, his rhetorical tactic might be viewed as flimsy yoking of two hot-button topics.

But in his discussion, Obama goes a step further to link the comparison between ISIS and global warming using the concept of risk. He did so by expressing the difficulties of putting a price on carbon emissions.

Just as it is difficult to assess how much money, manpower (troops, planes, drones, etc.), and time to invest in working towards combatting ISIS, it is similarly difficult in deciding how much money, manpower (research, renewables installation, emission reduction, etc.), and time to invest in working towards combatting climate change.

And it is risk, according to Obama, that links these great problems, or more specifically, putting a price on risk. In his famous climate change wake-up call An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore discusses the same problem, and uses what he claimed was a PowerPoint slide from a congressional hearing to give his audience a visual of the cost analysis of risk.

Gore Balance

One way of processing this information is in terms of what sociologist Ulrich Beck called “world risk society,” or a world in which calculating future risk is commonplace, and where these calculations are often met with uncontrollable, unnatural, human-manufactured uncertainties and hazards.

According to Beck, these “uncontrollable risks” come not from the increase in risk in general, but the debounding or the risks themselves, and this occurs in three forms: spatial, temporal, and social. So, using climate change as an example, we see that the issue is not bound by space (it affects the whole planet, if unevenly), it is not bound by time (there is a long latency period), and it not bound to a particular society or specific cause (lots of factors, lots of change agents).

Or, as Beck states, “It is difficult to determine, in a legally relevant manner, who ‘causes’ environmental pollution or a financial crisis and who is responsible, since these are mainly due to the combined effects of the actions of many individuals. ‘Uncontrollable risks’ must be understood as not being linked to place, that is they are difficult to impute to a particular agent and can hardly be controlled on the level of the nation state.”

In terms of ISIS, the situation is similar in that terrorist acts committed by this group are not bound by the spatial, temporal, or social. But, as Beck alludes, while the ecological crisis is in many ways an unintentional side-effect of production, terrorism is the intentional side-effect of destruction.

Awareness of this risk is the common factor, and Obama, I think, was not wrong to point to the similarities between these sources of risk: they are similar destructive forces.

Acknowledging this is a first step towards a solution, which must come from within the framework of our world risk society. This requires complex global strategies that can bridge spatial, temporal, and social divides to make long-term, global commitments towards change regardless of cost, or perhaps, because of it.

If you want to know more:

  • Here is a good write up on Obama’s Paris speech and its implications.
  • Here is a 10 point discussion of the U.N. Climate Change Conference as a whole.
  • Concerning slippery slope arguments, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca discuss it under “arguments of direction” in The New Rhetoric, (pp. 281-87) demonstrating how an action or policy or position leads inevitably to an end point.
  • The information on world risk society was drawn from Ulrich Beck’s article “The Terrorist Threat: World Risk Society Revisited” from Theory, Culture, and Society (08/2002), and is especially useful for discussing terrorism and its relation to economics, ecology, and sociology. He published several works related to risk, an excellent compendium of which can be found here.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2015 4:59 pm

    What a complete hoax

    • December 2, 2015 10:02 am

      The Islamic State? Or climate change? I’d be interested to see you debate the United Nations on either point.

  2. December 2, 2015 12:53 pm

    This was a great analysis. I also would say that climate change could also be linked to terrorism in that it stands to impact countries that are already using subsistence farming and have minimal access to water. For any country where large populations are starving, struggling financially, and experiencing drought, such conditions are more conducive to regimes that promise to feed the people and given the population’s desperate state they are more likely to make concessions to more militant, power hungry groups. Part of the reason for such instability in the middle east is that many of the middle eastern country don’t own the access to the oil which is their only natural resource as they are otherwise in the desert. Thus it is always a struggle for the population at large to thrive and I think they are more likely to take their chances with leaders who may be less than benevolent. That’s just my opinion, but I see there being at least a loose connection there between pressure on resources and unstable governments through climate change.

    • December 2, 2015 3:07 pm


      That’s a great point, and also viable in many parts of Africa as well. From a recent AP article:

      African leaders, meanwhile, stressed the need to address shrinking resources in the troubled Lake Chad region, where the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram carries out regular attacks. The lake, surrounded by Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, has shrunk as much as 90 percent compared to 1960, changing the lives of nearby farmers, fishermen and herders. Some also say the increasing desperation is driving people into the extremists’ ranks. “There’s a close link between the drying-up of the lake and the terrorism of Boko Haram,” said Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. “We must act quickly, before it’s too late” to help people in the region.”

      The issues appear to be integrally related already, and continued climate change will do nothing but exaggerate issues.

      • December 2, 2015 4:47 pm

        Yeah Africa was where I was thinking as I likely place for most of the environmental pressure from climate change. I did not know that about lake Chad. Thanks for sharing.

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